Ferris Chorale Soars

Reviewed by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 3/2/2015

Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti was roughly a contemporary of Puccini's although he outlived his countryman by 44 years. Pizzetti railed against what he considered to be the melodic and emotional excesses of Puccini's music and others of the verismo school, espousing a more austere style that harkens to Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant. His idiom finds its greatest expression in his impressive body of a cappella choral works.

One of Pizzetti's finest masterpieces for unaccompanied chorus, the 1922 "Messa di Requiem," was one of two sorely neglected Italian requiems from the early 20th century that made up the fascinating program presented by the William Ferris Chorale on Saturday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.

The Pizzetti work, billed as a Chicago premiere, was paired with a requiem even choral buffs probably have never heard of, much less heard: Bonaventura Somma's "Missa Pro Defunctis" (1917), in what was billed as its American premiere. Both requiems were given in memory of tenor John Vorrasi, the chorale's beloved co-founder, longtime general manager and artistic director, who died of leukemia on Feb. 23.

Why neither the Pizzetti nor the Somma requiem is not more widely known is a mystery, since both of these liturgical works are full of inspired music; that much was made abundantly clear by the fervent performances Paul French drew from the 24-voice chamber choir. This is precisely the sort of important esoterica the chorale's namesake founder-director, William Ferris, devotedly championed. Now in his 10th season as music director, French is carrying on the Ferris tradition splendidly.

For certain he has lifted the chorus to a higher level of musical and technical proficiency than I can recall from more than three decades of covering the group – indeed, I'm not sure any previous incarnation of the Ferris chorale could have executed, say, Pizzetti's tricky "Die irae" section so precisely, with altos and basses intoning the medieval plainchant, accompanied by the wailing melismas of sopranos and tenors.

The Somma requiem, with its gently interweaving melodic lines poised over a lush harmonic foundation of low male voices, owes much to the late-romantic manner of his teacher, Ottorino Respighi. But it, too, is beautifully made and most affecting in its sincerity and devoutness of expression. The chorale's account, richly resounding within the church's enveloping acoustics, made you wonder why nobody performs Somma's music — even, apparently, in Italy.